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Apple’s ‘Planet of the Apps’: lousy TV, good for developers

Ashley D’Arcy always dreamed of being on a reality TV show. But her job as a creative director for an app doesn’t frequently put her in front of a camera. D’Arcy’s dream was realized, however, when she and dozens of other app makers were thrown into the spotlight on Apple’s first original TV series, Planet of the Apps (POTA). It’s been widely (and accurately) described as a cross between Shark Tank and The Voice, and it’s a tepid take on the high-stakes world of… app funding.

You may have heard how boring the show is, especially to my fellow tech reporters, who receive dozens of similar pitches every day. POTA is disappointing to those who expect more from the company that’s basically responsible for today’s thriving app ecosystem. You would think that Apple would be able to create a show that’s unique, informative and entertaining, given its expertise on the subject matter and history of innovating (even if its latest projects have been bland).

But the most interesting part of the show barely gets enough screen time. It’s a clever spin on the elevator pitch — a physical escalator that takes hopeful participants on a 60-second ride from the developer lounge while they describe their app. At the bottom, they face the celebrity judges: Jessica Alba, Gwyneth Paltrow, Garry Vaynberg and will.i.am. (I guess Jony Ive was too busy designing the next iPhone.) The judges swipe yes or no (green or red) on their iPads after the escalator pitch, and if at least one of them says yes, the developers get to explain their product in more detail. At the end of that, all four judges get to decide if they want to help out the app, and the participants pick the mentor they prefer. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s the basic format for The Voice.

After the escalator pitch, the rest of the show follows typical reality TV tropes. Over the course of about 50 minutes, you’ll watch the developers work with their mentors to refocus their apps and come up with a killer pitch that will convince Lightspeed Venture Partners to give them money. Basically, after snagging a mentor on The Voice for apps, they’ll be working to get funding from Shark Tank for apps. Yup. Way to repurpose existing formats, Apple.

For a show about developers, there is shockingly little coding or app design on-screen. What you do get is a pop-up label every time a barely jargony phrase is dropped, explaining what the term means. It’s strangely condescending and seems somewhat misguided. The show targets a mainstream audience that might not get terms like API, SDK or UX, and for these folks those labels make sense. The thing is, because of its subject matter, Planet is theoretically more likely to appeal to those in the tech industry who already know the majority of those words.

But POTA is not completely without merit. At the least, it helps the participating companies. On last week’s episode, I watched as three apps that I would normally have written off — Poncho, Cheddar and Stop, Breathe & Think (SBT) — refocused and gained serious potential and funding.

Participants agreed that pitching a venture capital fund in real life isn’t much different from the way it plays out in POTA, barring the cameras and production schedules. “The only difference is, the VCs made their decision within probably 10 to 15 minutes, versus the real world where they probably take weeks, months before they can commit,” Poncho’s founder Kuan Huang told Engadget. “I’m pretty sure Lightspeed did lots of homework before they even talked to us.” Otherwise, Huang noted that the back and forth over details like metrics and financials very much resembled a venture capital pitch meeting outside the show, except Lightspeed was better prepared.

Although there wasn’t a significant difference between being on the show and fund-raising in real life, the companies involved still benefited to varying degrees. Of the trio from last week’s episode, Poncho gained the most. It’s a messaging bot in the form of a Brooklyn cat that tells you the weather in a personable way. I was already aware of Poncho’s app and chatbots before the episode, and while I found the character’s friendly persona interesting, I wasn’t as convinced by the promise of yet another AI assistant.

After Poncho was picked by Paltrow, Huang and D’Arcy talked to Giphy founder Alex Chung during a six-week incubation period and refocused their objective with Chung’s perspective and input. They went to Lightspeed with a compelling pitch — Poncho would be a content platform that served up intelligent alerts, schedules, news and even buying suggestions to your phone’s lock screen. Because of the work by D’Arcy and her team, Poncho is humorous, charming and adorable, which Lightspeed believed would resonate with the vast market of millennials today.

As they went over the details of the pitch, Lightspeed also pointed out that Poncho’s user base had a significant portion of younger women, whom they said were tastemakers. In fact, they said, Snapchat had similar demographics before it blew up. Lightspeed would know too: It was one of the first investors in the ephemeral messaging app.

In just one episode (that took six months to produce), Poncho went from a simple chat service looking to monetize its product to a content platform that aspires to be as big as Snapchat. I sure am paying attention now.

Stop, Breathe & Think saw more-quantifiable improvements. CEO Julie Campistron told Engadget that since being featured in the app store after the show, downloads of the company’s app have doubled. Being on POTA also sped up the process of creating a child-friendly version of Stop, Breathe and Think’s meditation program, Campistron said. That made-for-kids app has seen a 60 percent increase in downloads since the episode aired. Thanks to the show, she was also able to conduct focus groups (set up by the production company) to learn how children respond to her app.

For Cheddar’s CEO Jon Steinberg, having to repeatedly describe his business in a short time made him better at it. “The challenge of pitching on the escalator made me have to refine the idea in a very specific and simple way,” he said. “It forced me to have to explain the company in 60 seconds.” Steinberg ended up securing $ 2.5 million from Lightspeed to revamp his app (it’s worth noting Lightspeed had already invested in Cheddar prior to the show). Plus, he got to spend time with his mentor will.i.am, who Steinberg said was his first choice even before filming started, and they remain in touch.

Ultimately, POTA is a barely entertaining program that really only benefits its participants. The thing is, Apple had almost nothing to do with the improvements each company in the most recent episode saw, aside from download gains from being featured in the app store. It would have been nice to see the iPhone maker’s own developers weigh in on what makes an app successful or go full geek on the benefits of one programming language over another. If presented differently, maybe POTA would have a chance with app nerds and the TechCrunch crowd. But as it is, the show lacks punch and flavor — essential ingredients for drawing in a mainstream audience. If this is an indicator of what to expect from Apple’s upcoming lineup of original content, we may be in for more disappointment yet.

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